The Nazareth where Jesus grew up was a backwater village of around 475 people. Cosmopolitan Jews from Jerusalem looked down their noses at it. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asked Nathanael when presented with the proposition that the man who might be the Messiah hailed from there (John 1:46). As Pope John Paul II saw firsthand during his historic Holy Land pilgrimage last month, today the city of 70,000 bustles with cars, loud radios and shop after shop whose merchants stand outside genially hawking their goods.
The Basilica of the Annunciation, at which the Holy Father celebrated Mass on the feast of the Annunciation, commemorates the good that came out of Nazareth.
Pedestrians in Nazareth must dash across the street to dodge speeding cars. I saw two schoolgirls, about 5 years old, waiting vainly to cross the street. Losing patience, they finally burst into the road. The fast-approaching driver hit his brakes and wanly smiled at the girls as they skipped across the road.
Nazareth is an Arab city. Some of its citizens are Christian, but most are Muslim. The sidewalks of the city are crowded with Arab men in traditional attire drinking powerful coffee and smoking Eastern-style pipes. Radios in Muslim shops blare sunset prayers. The hustle and bustle eases on Friday, the holy day for Muslims.
Nazareth is a lot like Chicago, where I live. It is busy, crowded, overheated much of the time. The historical Jesus is relatively easy to imagine in Bethlehem or Jerusalem, where the past is more recognizable. Finding Jesus in Nazareth is more of a challenge. The city's only obvious scriptural vestiges are the occasional donkeys that drivers skillfully swerve around.
The Basilica of the Annunciation, at which the Holy Father celebrated Mass on the feast of the Annunciation, commemorates the good that came out of Nazareth. The mammoth church, built in 1969, is the largest church in the Middle East. The present church is the fifth to occupy the site, constructed above what is believed to be the home of Mary. The heart of the beautiful, spacious church contains an underground grotto where history was forever altered. Layer after layer of Nazareth has been stripped away to reveal the cavelike dwelling where tradition says Mary met Gabriel.
Mary's home, surrounded by a tacky fence, is not much to look at. But it does wonders for the imagination. “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” the angel Gabriel greeted her. Marking the spots where the two faced each other are two granite columns, known as the “column of Gabriel” and the “column of Mary.”
Is this truly where Jesus learned to walk and talk? Where Mary took him in her arms and held him close to her heart? Where Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge, according to the divine plan? The earliest Christians believed so. And so have Christian pilgrims through the ages. The spot is certainly holy ground, even if only for the millennia of faith witnessed here.
The Basilica of the Annunciation is a testament to the world's love of Mary. The side walls are decorated with huge panels depicting Mary and Child from dozens of cultural perspectives. Each image, paid for by Catholics in its country, lovingly places Mary in a specific cultural context. From Japan is a kimono-clad Mary with beautiful eyes. Our Lady of Africa, a gift from Cameroon, depicts women offering the fruits of their labor to Mary and Jesus.
The American panel is a highly modernistic cubist version of the Blessed Mother. Mary's face is obscure. It's not black or white, old or young, full of innocence of youth or the wisdom of age. It's an image appropriate for the United States, a land of diversity whose Catholic faith is fueled by people of many origins.
St. Joseph's Shop
The small but graceful St. Joseph Church is next to the basilica. The church marks the traditional site of Joseph's carpentry shop. Beneath the church is a rock-hewn chamber believed to be the Holy Family's home. Sunk in the floor are pits that served as cool storage for meat. A smooth circular slab of rock functioned as a crude table.
The storage pits and table are obvious re-creations intended to increase the site's historic authenticity. The wonder of such sites is not the actual evidence of antiquity, but the realization that Mary and Joseph once walked this earth, breathed this air, kept a home and experienced the joys and sorrows of the rest of us. Visiting the sacred sites does not allow us so much to touch history as to feel it. Pilgrimages to these places touches us with the sacred past more through the heart than the eyes.
After my visit to St. Joseph's, I left the church and walked past a garden toward a quiet back street. A group of Arab Catholic children, dressed in school uniforms, carried bundles of books. I heard their laughter and watched the boys tease the girls, who waved off the boys' playfulness.
The youths paid no attention to the basilica, a building they passed every school day. Like all youth, their frame of reference was the momentous present. But they stood in the shadow of the church, too. On that holy ground 2,000 years ago, Mary began her journey toward God. I left with a strong sense that, like Mary and like me, those children, though they envisioned Mary's face differently than I did, were on their own pilgrimage of faith.
Jay Copp is based in Chicago.